NEW YORK — What is that unaccustomed sound erupting all around me in the dark in the Marquis Theatre? Could it be . . . laughter?
This embraceably funny concoction goes by the title of “Tootsie,” which also was the title of its eternally endearing 1982 film source, starring Dustin Hoffman as a temperamental actor so desperate for a part he disguises himself as a woman to get it. The mantle of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels has been passed down on this occasion to the sublime Santino Fontana, who not only gets to strut his farcical stuff, but also sings, amazingly well, in two registers.
With a genuinely witty book by Robert Horn and an engaging score by David Yazbek, a Tony recipient last year for “The Band’s Visit,” “Tootsie” is the tuneful winner this Broadway season has been desperate for. It’s a good-natured, conventionally assured book musical of the golden-age variety, expertly directed by Scott Ellis, with a clown car’s worth of comic actors, filled by Reg Rogers, Andy Grotelueschen, Julie Halston, Michael McGrath, Sarah Stiles and John Behlmann. Combined, these are the ingredients for an old-style Broadway hit. The question is, can “Tootsie” convince ticket buyers that it’s not the latest repast from a tired recipe?
A kind of movie-to-musical fatigue has settled over Broadway, occasioned by the creation of one too many inferior versions of celebrated film comedies. “Pretty Woman,” “Groundhog Day” and “School of Rock” are just a few among a slew of prominent properties that have been recycled as lesser stage incarnations of their cinematic selves. It remains to be seen this week whether “Beetlejuice,” which had such an inauspicious inauguration last fall in Washington, has fashioned itself into more than mere catnip for unsuspecting tourists.
“Tootsie” is already in a loftier category, and if “Beetlejuice” has not righted itself, then I’d name this show as the odds-on favorite for the Tony; this season, only “The Prom” has displayed as much joy and vigor. (Of “Hadestown,” “Be More Chill,” “Head Over Heels” and oy — “King Kong” — I was not a fan.)
Book writer Horn has to be anointed the hero of this cinema-to-stage translation; his script rewrites the plot (and the jokes) to a degree that stamps the Broadway “Tootsie” as meritorious on its own terms. Although the “reveal” at the end of the show is not quite the coup that screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Don McGuire came up with in Sydney Pollack’s movie, the musical in other regards finds smart alternatives to the original plot.
Now, it’s not a soap opera, but a Broadway musical, that Dorothy infiltrates. And although many of the characters will be recognizable to the film’s devotees, a few have undergone radical makeovers: The aging actor-roué portrayed in the movie by George Gaynes is now a dimwitted young actor-stud, amusingly embodied by Behlmann. And Julie (Lilli Cooper), the object of Michael’s affection, no longer has a father (portrayed in the film by the late great Charles Durning) who falls for Dorothy.
Yazbek’s score for the Israel-set “The Band’s Visit” was so redolent of the Middle East that the music for “Tootsie” was bound to feel lacking in some comparably intense flavor. On first listen, you hear some of the musical motifs that animate this multifaceted composer-lyricist, and in some vital ways, he has found rhythms to match the characters’ personalities and neuroses. This is most apparent in the recurring “What’s Gonna Happen” for Stiles’s Sandy (Teri Garr in the movie), a list song that spills out of her as if her metabolism were fueled by natural amphetamines.
Cooper, following in the footsteps of Jessica Lange, has the assignment of appearing both vulnerable and self-reliant; this is 2019, after all. And in a concession to modern-day sensibilities, Grotelueschen’s Jeff, Michael’s roommate (played by Bill Murray in the movie), now takes note of the political incorrectness of “Dorothy” stealing a job from a woman. Grotelueschen makes for a winningly cynical Jeff, and there are other perfectly constructed comic turns from McGrath as Michael’s exasperated agent; Halston as the musical-within-a-musical’s brassy producer; and Rogers, playing the tale’s reptilian director as a more self-dramatizing version of the character Dabney Coleman inhabited on-screen.
The production’s best design element is Dorothy herself. Fontana happens to look great in the dresses William Ivey Long has dreamed up for him. The actor segues from masculine to feminine and back again with an effortlessness Hoffman was not built for, so the jokes in the movie about this obvious deficiency are not as necessary onstage. The nice thing about “Tootsie” is that even with all the spoofing, there’s an acknowledgment here of some of the actual indignities women put up with, and an affection for the civilizing spirit a woman can confer on the world.
Tootsie, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Robert Horn. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreography, Denis Jones; music direction, Andrea Grody; sets, David Rockwell; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Brian Ronan; wigs, Paul Huntley; makeup, Angelina Avallone. About 2½ hours. $79-$339. At Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St., New York. ticketmaster.com.